Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

New breeding bird atlas begins
March 24, 2007
Steve Grinley

     If you are familiar with the red-bellied woodpecker or the Carolina wren, you’ll know these birds are relative newcomers to our area. Both of these species have expanded their ranges into New England over the past 30 years or more. The same was true of northern cardinal, tufted titmouse and mockingbird back in the 1960s. Landscape and climate changes have rippling effects on birds and animals. In 1974, Mass Audubon launched the first Breeding Bird Atlas, an attempt to map the status of breeding birds across the state. It was a five-year project, which included enlisting volunteers with an interest in birds, to systematically survey the entire state for breeding birds. The work was completed in 1979 and the results, complete with maps and species accounts, is available online or in a beautifully printed book.

     More than 200 breeding species were recorded in the first survey. If you look at the maps in the first atlas you’ll see that the cardinal, tufted titmouse and mockingbird are well established throughout the state in the late ’70s. However, there was no evidence found of Carolina wrens nesting north of Boston. Also, only about five nests, or suspected nests, of red-bellied woodpeckers were found in the entire state back then. We know that has changed. Since that time more states have undertaken such projects.

     But in order for this atlas to be an effective way to measure changes in breeding distributions, it must be repeated periodically. Since Massachusetts loses more than 40 acres of land to development each day, it is important to know how that, coupled with global warming, affects bird population changes. Such data is critical in helping to preserve the birds and their habitat throughout the state.

     The second Breeding Bird Atlas for Massachusetts begins this year and will continue for five years. At the end of that period, there will be a mass of data to directly compare to the data in the first atlas. The state is divided into almost a thousand 10-square-mile blocks and the blocks are assigned to volunteers, who will spend at least 20 hours of time each year surveying their blocks. The goal is to find all the species breeding in each block.

     For instance, I have volunteered to cover two blocks in the Newburyport/Newbury area. Together, they roughly cover the area bordered by the Merrimack River to the north, Interstate 95 to the west, a bit east of Route 1 on the east and south to about The Governor’s Academy. It is a lot of area to cover, with diverse habitats throughout. Such territory, even half that size, can use the help of additional volunteers. That could be you. Volunteers are needed to go out into the field for any amount of time, or even just survey their own back yard. The more data that is collected, the more complete the survey will be.

     To see how you can help, you can go to the Mass Audubon Web site – www.massaudubon.org/birdatlas – for more information. There, you can see the great work that was done on Atlas 1 and read any of the accounts of the birds that interest you. You can go to the maps to see what block is in your area, and you can even sign up to help. Even if you don’t sign up, it is important to make volunteers in your area aware of any nests or evidence of nests that you find. It’s important that you not approach or disturb a nest in any way. Rather, you can just watch birds from afar and watch what they do.

     From now through June I’ll be listening for birds singing from a perch. I’ll be watching for birds carrying nesting material to a tree or shrub or adult birds carrying food. These actions are all evidence that birds may be nesting and often suffice in establishing probable nesting records. This is an exciting project in which I’m looking forward to participating. And, since data will be entered into the data base in real time, we’ll be able to see the results immediately and compare it to Atlas 1 at the conclusion of the five-year project. So check out that Web site and keep your eyes and ears open this spring!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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